An interview with illustrator and muralist,
Nigel creates complex isometric murals and illustrations. He can often be found painting pictures of giant cats or flying food. The detail is all done by hand and with a lighthearted sense of humor that keeps you looking, and smiling. Nigel has created art for a wide range of businesses and organizations, from large, innovative brands like Google, eBay and Adidas, and completed projects that include large scale murals to more traditional print projects for well-known publications. Bold, bright and complex, Nigel’s signature style uses isometric line-art and a striking but simple color palette, creating seek-and-find type illustrations that feature complex fantasy architecture and/or imaginary machines. There’s all kinds of activity going on in Nigel’s work and it’s no surprise to find that his influences include Martin Handford (creator of Where’s Waldo?), MC Escher and the original SimCity computer games.
To start off, I want to talk a little bit about being an illustrator. You began your career in the arts, quickly discovering a passion for illustration. What did this mean for your education?
When I think back, I realize that I have always gravitated to illustration. As a child, spending hours pouring over old scientific illustrations of animals and dinosaurs, Decorative maps, seek-and-find books, and instructional cross-sections. As early as middle school I was constantly drawing, and would occasionally trade or sell small commissions to friends. My father was the director of a community music school, which afforded me the opportunity to design shirts for the kid’s camps, which i did almost every year, giving me my first recurring illustration client at the age of 11 or 12. Thus, I learned how gratifying it is to create something can both serve a purpose, make people happy, and serve as a form of expression. It is quite a potent satisfaction! It is only looking back now that I realize how formative this was then, though I don’t think that I realized that I was doing “illustration” at the time.
I studied arts at a traditional university, but did not appreciate the purely ‘fine art’ approach of the program. In some of my drawing classes, my intricate psychedelic inspired fantasy illustrations would get worse grades from the teachers, than those who had an emotional concept/story for an abstract “scribble”! I stumbled upon, and researched a program specifically in something called “illustration” which sounded exactly like what I was looking for. I transferred to then California College of Arts & Crafts in fall 2003. This meant driving from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, across the country that summer to move to Oakland, California. It was definitely the right choice, and have been in the Bay Area ever since.
Once new to the city, you have become an active actor in local culture through mural works that are currently scattered throughout the Bay Area. How do these projects created for public spaces connect you to the local community?
Working on projects that are public facing, mostly on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland, has afforded me the privilege of meeting so many interesting people from all walks of life. It is something I miss since COVID-19, but I used to interact with hundreds of people over the course of a painting, answering questions, taking requests, collaborating, and giving out free stickers. I love hearing from people how the murals, especially the temporary work on construction facades, make them smile on their way to-and-from work.
What do you take into consideration when creating a “public” mural?
My philosophy for creating murals is always to brighten the space and make it more inviting and cheerful for everyone. This means keeping content universal and relatable as possible. In a lot of the large-scale public art I often steer clear of representations of people or faces, choosing instead to focus on imagery of environment, architecture, animals, food, and objects. Despite that, I ultimately will collaborate with the client to create whatever is desired and is appropriate for the space, even if it is not what I would “normally” do.
Aside from public projects and commissions, many of your commissions are for private spaces. How do you carry out a “private” project for offices and companies?
Currently, the majority of my commissioned work is corporate and follows a digital design feedback process that I learnt during my years of working in the advertising industry. I quickly found work as a web designer after graduating, and worked that career as an animator, designer, and eventually art director for about a decade. Being experienced at that agency style process has definitely been useful, and influenced the way I work with personal clients now.
Even in private projects, you’ve assured that each work has a collaborative aspect to it. Is this connected in any way to your role as an illustrator? In our conversations, I’ve thought a lot about your role as a translator who produces an illustration based on the client’s idea. How do you understand this relationship?
The role of illustrator is something that runs through almost all of my work. My job is more to act as a translator to communicate the brand of a company, the product of a business, or the essence of a community through the filter of my hand and imagination. Most often clients request and expect what has become my ‘signature style’, but I sometimes emulate other looks and techniques as required. It can actually be creatively refreshing to be asked to create work that I would not otherwise think of doing.
All of your illustrations and murals engage with the spectator greatly. We are compelled to look into all the small interactions between objects and characters, as if we are playing a game. Has this been an important part of your illustrations early on or did this aspect develop organically with time?
I have always loved the aesthetic of busy, intricate, and involved images. My illustration is influenced by the complex systems of nature, architecture, machines, and biology. I have always gravitated to this, and attempting to emulate it was something that I did from an early age. My drawings have just gotten more steady, consistent, and methodical with decades of practice.
How do you imagine the future of illustration?
There is so much content and media being created globally every day, and visuals are an increasingly important part. Illustration is more relevant and easier to do than ever before. As with any creative pursuit, the increasing saturation of content means that is even more important to be opportunistic, dedicated, and adaptable in order to stand out from the crowd.
What are you currently working on?
I usually have at least 9 or 10 projects running in different stages of progress at any given time. Right now I have a few indoor corporate office murals, a few outdoor community-facing murals, as well as mural, logo, and illustration works for some local businesses. I can’t always talk about things before they are completed, but a some of the projects include a “Welcome to West Berkeley” mural on Gilman st.
Thank you for your time Nigel!